In Flames was an iconic heavy metal band from the ’90s. It’s also the title of Haralabos (Harry) Stafylakis’ second string quartet, which premiered in New York in May. There are no death metal growls in the quartet, but the title is hardly a coincidence. Stafylakis composed, played guitar and sang for years in a metal band – progressive metal, to be sure, and unabashedly informed by classical and jazz practice, but, yes, there was some screaming.

Stafylakis’ band days are behind him, but metal’s power chords, dense textures, guitar-riff basslines and complex rhythms are not. In fact, the intersection of heavy metal and classical music is the focus of the Ph.D Stafylakis is pursuing at the City University of New York (CUNY), where he studies with David Del Tredici.

“Contemporary metal bands Symphony X and Opeth are as integral to my sound world as Beethoven and Stravinsky,” says Stafylakis, who received his B.A. in composition from McGill University in 2010. “I’m not in line with the prevailing zeitgeist that art music should be as difficult and innovative as possible. If higher music is to survive – and if I’m going to enjoy myself – it needs to be more inclusive.”

“If higher music is to survive it needs to be more inclusive.”

Not that metal is always obvious in his music, although it is sometimes explicit, as in the saxophone quartet, Sharp End, or in Critical Density, which won a SOCAN Foundation Award for Young Composers. Stafylakis considers Critical Density – essentially a guitar concerto with string quartet accompaniment – his “masterpiece” to date.

But not surprisingly for someone who composes by singing, Stafylakis is increasingly drawn to writing for voice. Ubi Sunt, for women’s choir, harp, vibraphone and strings also won a SOCAN Foundation Young Composers Award, and recent projects include The Metal and the Flower for tenor, accordion and piano, set to poetry by P.K. Page; and The Esther Diaries, for soprano and chamber ensemble (based on the Biblical story of Esther, with a libretto by Ellen Frankel), which premieres in New York in December.

Stafylakis likes his music to sound big. “I come from the Romantic tradition – as does progressive metal in general – so I tend towards lushness, even if my actual language is not Romantic,” he says. Consecutive chords don’t progress diatonically, and Stafylakis avoids “the cheesiness of the pure major scale,” preferring to cycle quickly through different modes to exploit their characteristic qualities.

But he loves triads, seeing “no reason to dismiss them simply because other people have used them for thousands of years.” Charles Ives, who once stood up just as categorically for dissonance, might have admired Stafylakis’ attitude. That’s apt, inasmuch as the American Academy of Arts and Letters recently awarded Stafylakis a prestigious $15,000 Charles Ives Fellowship.

Ives, of course, quoted prodigiously, and Stafylakis’ music has moments that seem oddly familiar. But there are no postmodernist (or modernist) quotations here. “I don’t do irony and humour,” says Stafylakis, categorical again. “My main reason for composing is to create more of the kind of music that I like.”

Though the members of MonkeyJunk may have decades between them age-wise, they share a common musical goal: to push the boundaries of the blues.

Steve Marriner, the band’s front man, is in his late twenties, lead guitarist Tony D is on the cusp of fifty, and drummer Matt Sobb falls somewhere in between. But with 12 Maple Blues Awards, a Canadian Independent Music Award, a Blues Music Award and a 2012 Juno for Blues Album of the Year (for To Behold), the generation gap isn’t slowing them down. “We’ve arrived at the same place,” explains Sobb, “but we got here on different roads.”

While all three grew up playing and listening to the blues, they also bring decidedly different musical influences to the table. “Steve is well versed in stuff that’s new,” explains Tony D with a laugh, “but I still think of stuff from the ’80s and ’90s as new music!” But Marriner says it all contributes to a sound they like to describe as “swamp R&B, soul boogie, and bedroom funk,” rather than anything that fits neatly into a single category.

When the trio first joined forces in 2008, they had no plans for making it big. Marriner, who plays harmonica, keyboards and baritone guitar, had been playing a weekly gig at Irene’s, a popular music venue in the band’s hometown of Ottawa, when he asked Tony D to accompany him. “We just wanted to have a good time on Sunday night,” he laughs. When the pair realized they were on to something, however, they called Sobb and told him he was in their new band. “We said ‘hey, we just started a band called MonkeyJunk, and you’re the drummer!” recalls Marriner.

Once they got together, things ramped up quickly. Within a month, the trio had recorded four songs, and a year later, they had their first studio album in hand. While all three shape the songs, Marriner handles most of the lyric writing, a process he says is getting easier as he learns to trust his gut. Their creative process may be mysterious and chaotic, but the band is happy with the way things are working out.

With a new album in the works, a touring schedule that includes the U.S. and France, and an ever-expanding legion of fans, the members of MonkeyJunk are keen to see what else the future has in store. “We’re just going to keep pushing the envelope,” says Marriner.

Track Record
• The name MonkeyJunk was inspired by a offhanded remark vintage American blues artist Son House made in a filmed interview. “I’m talkin’ ‘bout the blues. I ain’t talkin’ about monkey junk,” he said. The expression struck a chord with the band.
• MonkeyJunk deliberately has no bass, an homage to early blues music where it was common not to have one. Instead, Marriner plays baritone guitar.
• The band’s influences range from traditional blues (Hound Dog Taylor, Muddy Waters) to soul (Otis Redding, Al Green) to their current listening (The Meters, Little Feat, JJ Grey & Mofro, Derek Trucks).

“Changing the game” and “takin’ it to the next level” are both well-worn clichés in hip-hop and R&B. Everyone in these competitive genres, it seems, feels like they’re bringing something new to the table. That’s another empty cliché. Since the ’90s, both forms of music have received some criticism for abandoning creativity and churning out the same old, same old.

Enter Toronto’s The Weeknd (a.k.a. Abel Tesfaye), one of a handful of artists who’s helping restore widespread faith and critical respect in both genres.

A prodigious talent, the 20-something artist has already done something unheard of in music: in the space of nine months last year, he released three albums, House Of Balloons, Thursday, and Echoes of Silence, and posted them online, where they could be downloaded for free, just as if they were mixtapes. House of Balloons reportedly racked up more than 200,000 downloads in the first three weeks, and Thursday caused website servers to intermittently crash – but not before a reported 180,000 downloads on the first day. Echoes of Silence also caused a server crash. And he’s hit these heights with a unique new sound unlike anything else on the scene, often with disturbing music and lyrics.

The Weeknd has also done it with almost no public appearances, not a single media interview, and no record label of any kind. He’s played exactly four live performances: two in Toronto, and one each in Guelph, Ont., and London, Ont. Although he is part of the Toronto-based production / management / musical / business collective known as OVO XO – the home of Drake – his meteoric rise has really been fuelled by his music.

That, and a perfect storm of events. Following the release of House of Balloons, The Weeknd received a well-timed tweet by his OVO XO colleague Drake. Then he was name-checked by Jay-Z and Adele, and the mainstream started to take notice. The Weeknd landed on the coveted Polaris Prize shortlist for 2011 – a first for a free download. (Though he declined to perform at the Polaris gala.) He received raves fThis,” was used in HBO’s ad campaign for Entourage. He’s since done remixes by request for Florence and the Machine and Lady Gaga, and guest vocals on Drake’s Take Care. The Weeknd will play a prime slot at the prestigious indie music festival Coachella in April, his first official U.S. appearance, alongside the likes of Radiohead, The Black Keys and Dr. Dre.

The New York Times even dispatched a reporter to cover The Weeknd’s concert in Guelph last October. “He sang outrageously well, over woozy, narcotized rock by his stellar band,” Jon Caramanica raved in his review. “On record his voice can be otherworldly, but he delivered it here with force… ‘The Birds Part One’ and ‘The Birds Part Two’ were gut punches, the Weeknd at his most bruising.”

The acclaim is rooted in the singular quality of The Weeknd’s words and music. Darkly sensual and cinematic, The Weeknd’s sound is one of the most hypnotic you’ll hear these days. His plaintive falsetto perfectly complements the lush, spacey atmospherics of his songs, featuring moody synth washes, crisp beats and eclectic samples. His frail voice is the perfect vehicle for self-examining lyrics that hint at what a vulnerable young man he might be. He’s certainly capable of writing introspective, confessional and self-pitying songs.

But, as with hip-hop/R&B artists Tyler the Creator and Frank Ocean, of the U.S.-based Odd Futures collective, his work can also be intense and unsettling. The imagery is often debauched, nihilistic, narcotic, and darkly sexual. In the song “Initiation,” he uses drink and drugs to coerce an unwilling woman into group sex. Then there’s the lyrics to “Outside”: “Make yourself at home / Because baby when I’m finished with you / You won’t want to go outside.”

His twitter tweets speak for themselves. “I tapped into the darkest and the most shaded part of my mind for your entertainment,” he tweeted last Nov. 4. A few days earlier, he sent this out: “By simply surrounding yourself with ugliness, darkness and evil can you really understand and appreciate real beauty.” And there’s also this: “But my lung’s so muddy, i love the way it tastes… drink it til i’m ugly baby fuck me when i’m faded.”

There’s a lyric on record that captures The Weeknd’s essence and the idea that he’s the sort of game-changing jolt that hip-hop and R&B need: “I’m going to give you what you feign / I’m the drug in your veins / Just fight through your pain / He’s what you want / I’m what you need.”
But how long he can continue to inhabit the persona he’s created remains to be seen.